OdysseyStage Theatre will present Crimes of the Heart, the multiple award-winning first play by Jackson, Mississippi native Beth Henley (The Wake of Jamey Foster), Nov. 14-23 in the Robert E. Seymour Theater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, five years after Hurricane Camille, Crimes of the Heart is a hilarious and heart-warming story about the struggles of three wild and crazy young Mississippi sisters whose passions sometimes get the better of their common sense.

“When I returned to doing community theater after college, the first production I was in was Crimes of the Heart,” recalls OdysseyStage guest director John Paul Middlesworth. “I played Barnette Lloyd. The [1986] film of the play had not yet come out, so we were presenting something that was new to the audience and new to me as well. It ended up being one of the Statesville Little Theater’s biggest hits.

Middlesworth claims, “The play is a model of dramatic construction it has the unities of time, place, and subject that Aristotle talks about. But it’s the impression that the characters make that really sticks with you. It’s nearly impossible for an audience member not to end up with a lot of affection for the Magrath sisters. My initial interest in directing it came from remembering how enthusiastically people responded to the play when we did it in the 1980s.”

Crimes of the Heart debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, then opened Off-Broadway. On Nov 4, 1981, it opened at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway and ran for 535 performances. Henley’s maiden effort won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It was also nominated for four Tony Awards® (including Best Play).

In his director’s notes, OdysseyStage director John Paul Middlesworth calls Crimes of the Heart “a play about Southern women, by a Southern woman, comical to the core…. Who wouldn’t take the regional authenticity of the Magrath sisters above the abstract musings of [Edward] Albee’s Three Tall Women? [Wendy] Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles has nothing of Henley’s structural finesse. And despite a couple laughs, the Southern women of Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother are marked by unredeemable sadness…. But when you set [Steel Magnolias playwright] Robert Harling against Beth Henley, you realize that the woman from Mississippi is tough where Harling is sentimental, she’s upbeat where Harling is maudlin.”

In reviewing the 1981-83 Broadway production, The New York Times critic said the play “mines a pure vein of Southern Gothic humor worthy of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor” and claimed: “While this play overflows with infectious high spirits, it is also, unmistakably, the tale of a very troubled family. Such is Miss Henley’s prodigious talent that she can serve us pain as though it were a piece of cake.”

The New York Post reviewer said: “[Crimes of the Heart] has heart, wit and a surprisingly zany passion that must carry all before it … [I]t would certainly be a crime for anyone interested in the theatre not to see this play.” And the New York Magazine critic added: “From time to time a play comes along that restores one’s faith in our theatre….”

Director John Paul Middlesworth says the “crime at the heart” from which the play takes its title “occurs before the curtain opens: in a small Mississippi town, Babe Magrath (Lauren Walker) has shot and wounded her overbearing husband. The event sets in motion a reunion of sorts for Babe and her two sisters, Lenny (Ann Marie Thomas) and Meg (Collette Rutherford).

“Meg has returned to the South from California,” Middlesworth explains, “and enjoys another reunion as well, revisiting a boyfriend (Carroll Credle) whom she abruptly left years earlier. With the help of a young lawyer (Robert Bloomer), and despite the interference of their cousin Chick (Carey Sveen), the Magrath sisters get to the truth of Babe’s crime, along the way dealing with their own often hilarious frustrations.”

Middlesworth, who doubles as the show’s set designer, says, “The Robert Seymour Theatre provides an intimate space for plays, seating only about 50 or 60 people. We’ve worked hard to use the space effectively, bringing the kitchen table down just a few feet from the front row.

Crimes is also a rather prop-intensive play,” he adds, “so keeping up with all that entails has been demanding. The play requires many rapid shifts in tone, going rapidly from happiness to misery and then back again the actors meet that challenge quite skillfully, I believe.”

Besides director and set designer John Paul Middlesworth, the rest of the OdysseyStage production team includes producers Megan Mazzochi, Joan Troy, Maria Gargano; lighting and sound designer Larry Evans; costume designer Sheryle Criswell; and props mistress Candace Rohm.

When the show opens, Middlesworth says, “The year is 1974. We are in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy’s home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, colored in beige and yellow. A two-level set is used, with most of the action taking place close to the audience.

“A window above the kitchen sink looks out onto a tree,” says Middlesworth. “The lighting outside (golden or blue) clues the audience into the time of day. Otherwise, we’re in a bright kitchen.”

Middlesworth adds, “The costumes reflect the mid-1970s setting, an era of denim dresses, long skirts, and synthetic fibers.”

The director notes that the cast “consists entirely of newcomers to OdysseyStage, although they’ve all had experience in other area productions. I’m the veteran of a dozen different directing jobs,” says Middlesworth, “but this is the first time I’ve headed a production for OdysseyStage, and it marks my Triangle-area directing debut.”

OdysseyStage Theatre presents Crimes of the Heart Friday-Saturday, Nov. 14-15 and 21-22, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. in the Robert E. Seymour Theater (behind Squid’s), 400 S. Elliot Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $12 ($10 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/732-2408 or Maria.Gargano@bcbsnc.org. OdysseyStage Theatre: http://www.odysseystagetheatre.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4138. Crimes of the Heart (1986 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090886/.